“The Leaving Cert”

So the big news in Ireland the last couple weeks has been the release of Leaving Certs for secondary level students who took their final exams in June as well as the first round of offers for students looking to attend college in the fall (aprx 50,000 students).  Leaving Certs are a critical part of the Irish student’s progression to the 3rd level which is any level above secondary school (above high school). The Leaving Certs score would be something akin to the High School Grade Point Average in the U.S. coupled with the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT) scores that colleges and universities use to determine who to admit. The CAO (Central Applications Office) in Ireland processes all applications to public higher education institutions and makes recommendations to the schools on who to admit (the respective colleges have the final say on who to admit however) based on the Leaving Cert score. What’s it all mean you say and more importantly, why am I telling you all this?

All good questions which I hope to answer in this very informative blog on school daze in the US and Ireland. I say daze because I’m pretty sure I spent a good deal of time in one during school. There are definitely some similarities in the two school systems the first of which can be found in the majority of Catholic schools in the U.S. As a student who spent 13 and a half years in the Catholic school system (yes, I know it explains a lot), I can definitely tell you that sisters and brothers the world over have a certain blend of discipline that is hard to forget if you’re just the least bit of a smart ass. I still have images of erasers flying through the air and rulers cracking knuckles from my primary school days and large wooden bats (for lack of a better word) and jugs (detention) from my glorious days in high school (secondary) taught by the Christian Brothers of Ireland. As it turns out, my days of high school at Brother Rice, named after Edmund Ignatious Rice from Waterford no less, gave me a background very similar to a lot of the lads in Ireland.

I will tell you that even as a young student I noticed a big difference between the Catholic schools kids and public school kids or as I used to refer to them, republicans. Ok, our family was heavily democrat but I was a kid, gimme a break.  Some of the big differences I noticed as a kid, and something which is pretty much standard in Ireland, the Catholic school kids wore uniforms and the republican kids (I mean public) didn’t have too. Way unfair if you ask me. And even worse, I had to wear a tie every day in high school. To this day, I could tie a tie in my sleep. Looking back on it, I think uniforms are a great thing in school as they are a great equalizer among students which limits the potential for teasing and ensures students are focused on school vs fashion. Trust me – there is no fashion in a school uniform.

As mentioned, most all students in Ireland have to wear a uniform and as it turns out, over 90% of public schools are actually Catholic schools. And as they are Catholic schools, religion is one of the required courses as well as Irish – two big differences from the U.S. public school system. While I can relate to the mandatory religion courses, the Irish is completely foreign to me (pun intended). My foreign language education in school was Spanish and while I took 4 years in high school, my retention is very poor. In talking to quite a few of the locals in Ireland, the number of people who can speak Irish is extremely low despite upwards of 10 years of schooling for most people. As they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it. What is nice in Ireland though is the creation of all Irish speaking areas (Gaeltacht regions). This also includes all Irish speaking schools (aprx 200 plus of them exist in the country, I’m told). The concept is to help foster a resurgence in the local language after the British almost decimated it during their rule. Kudos and good luck to Kathy’s cousin for starting as an instructor at an all Irish school this school year!

I think a quick rundown of the primary and secondary levels as compared to the U.S. is warranted here. First off, the first 6 grades in Ireland are considered primary with the remaining grades, 7th through 12th being secondary. Primary school is similar in the U.S. with the first 5 grades being primary, 6th to 8th middle school and the remaining 4 years high school. Catholic schools in the U.S. don’t bother with the middle school part and call grades 1-8 grammar school and the remaining 4 high school as well. Apparently, the Catholic Church likes to distinguish itself from those republicans after all these years. Hmm – I’m starting to see why I don’t like republicans:)

A bit of a twist in the Irish school system is the inclusion of an optional transition year between the junior and senior cycle at the secondary level (high school). Apparently, the idea for the transition year is to give the student a chance to mature some and figure out what they want to focus on in their senior years of study. The secondary school consists of two certs, the junior cert and the leaving cert (briefly described earlier). The junior cert, completed after 3 years of secondary (7th, 8th and 1st year high school) can include 10 subject areas and while it doesn’t count significantly towards their further educational goals, can hopefully provide the student a guide to their strong subjects that they can focus on in the senior cycle (think junior and senior year high school). After the transition year, if taken, students pick 7 subjects to focus on in preparation for their Leaving Cert.  Got that?!?

One of the biggest differences between the U.S. and Irish education system at the college level is free tuition. Irish students who choose a public university can get a college degree for what amounts to nothing except for some student service fees that can be covered if the student gets any type of financial aid (financial aid can also help cover costs of living if available). Having seen the amount of debt that students rack up in the U.S. after graduating from college with a 4 year degree, let alone a masters or doctorate, it is great to see an educational system where the student doesn’t have to promise their first born to get a college degree. I’ve read of students racking up debt in the 6 figures just to get a decent education – doesn’t make a lot of sense. Perhaps the U.S. could learn a few things from the Irish model. Get Bernie on it!

A final note on the mind numbing SAT and ACT tests I referred to earlier required for entrance to U.S. colleges. Having taken way too many of these standardized tests in my school daze, I think the Irish are missing out on ways to properly torture their students. Ask anyone who has sat through a 300 or 400 answer test filling in all those tiny little circles and you will understand just how mind numbing it can be. The dots will actually start forming different shapes as your brain turns to mush on your last 100 questions or so. Add to that (and this is purely hypothetical) taking a test like this after spending a night in jail with ten of your best buddies and you might wonder why someone might not do so well (ok, it was for a curfew violation but it sounded ominous right?)

That’s it than, an education on education. And while there won’t be a test after you read this, it will hopefully enlighten you as to how the Irish educate their kids and for my Irish readers, how the U.S. does it. Unfortunately, my local poet had no poems on school or Leaving Certs for your reading pleasure this week, I will of course include our weekly Irish phrase.


PHRASE: Mol an oige agus tiocfaidh siad
PRONOUNCED: moll on ogue/ihh og/iss chuck/igg sheed
MEANING: Praise the young and they will flourish



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2 thoughts on ““The Leaving Cert”

  1. Nicely-done breakdown on the Irish education system Jay….especially at the “upper level preparing for life vs university”. 😉☺️👍🏻📚📏📖📓 Certainly does remind me a lot of Germany, with the exception of the Catholic leanings of course. 😌 Interesting though that you associated public schools with Republicans; I’ve found down here (Southern FL) to be the opposite, based on Amanda’s and Mike’s attendance at Middle, Jr High and High public schools – must be a “regional relevance” kind of thing. 😉😄☺️🤔 Thank you for another wonderful blog (keep ’em coming!) and I hope your brother and his family are enjoying themselves. As always, my love to Kathy and Rudy, hello to your brother (and family) and, of course – Sláinte!! 😄☺️🍀🍀😜🍻🍻🍺🍺🇮🇪🇮🇪


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